By Anya McCann

Author, Anya McCann, was vegetarian for 30 years and has been a vegan for 7. She has raised two healthy children and to keep things interesting, they are all chefs who prepare cuisine from around the world. She is the owner of Green Your World, which brings the principles of sustainability into practice at home.

Individual diet matters

Our individual dietary choices can significantly lower our impact on the environment. With concern about climate change growing, many individuals are seeking ways they can personally reduce our collective carbon footprint. Eating less or no meat is a big step in the right direction.

In the United States, one of the two largest contributors to global warming at the individual level is food consumption. The call to eat less red meat and poultry has been touted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Baskin Robbins heir John Robbins, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and physicians such as cardiologist Dr. Dean Ornish.

While people may choose to eat less meat, become vegetarian or go completely vegan for ethical, religious, or health reasons, this article is focused on changing our diets to reduce the detrimental environmental consequences of consuming meat and dairy products.

Why eat less meat

Meat-based diets, on average, contain about 28% calories from animal products and use twice the energy to produce as a vegetarian diet. “Meat production as it is widely practiced today also has significant environmental impacts on land use, water use, and water pollution, and air emissions,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Considering land use, and water use and pollution – eating less meat is one of the most effective environmental consumer choices.” (Brower, M., and W. Leon (1999) The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices)

 “Considering land use, and water use and pollution –               eating less meat is one of the most effective                environmental consumer choices.”

Too many calories

Any way you slice it, Americans eat a lot of meat. And it causes many negative impacts. In 2000, annual meat consumption in the U.S. was 195 pounds per person, 57 pounds more per person than in the 1950s. However, the American public has reversed the trend in meat consumption per person since 2007. “Total US meat consumption peaked in 2007 at 55 billion pounds and has fallen each year since. In 2012, consumption is expected to drop to 52 billion pounds, the lowest level in more than a decade.” (Earth Policy Institute based on USDA data) Eating less meat is a trend everyone can join.

The food supply in 2000 averaged 3,800 calories per person per day – 500 calories more than in the 1970s and 800 more than in the 1950s. Of the calories produced, approximately 25% were lost as wasted food. Still Americans were eating 2,700 daily calories per capita – 25% more than in 1970 and much more than the recommended calories per day. (USDA)

According to WebMD’s Estimated Calorie Requirements, women aged 31-50 should consume 2000 calories per day and men the same age need 2300-2400. Some 62% of adults are overweight, and 27% of adults and 20% of children age 6-19 are obese. (USDA)

What would happen if all Americans were eating enough to meet our daily needs, but not exceed them? A lower calorie diet would have lower impacts.

Dr. Dean Ornish recommends a very low fat, meatless diet for his heart patients and for all people. He teaches in his book Eat More, Weigh Less that such a diet which is lower in fat and cholesterol is also lower in calories. “I can eat whenever I’m hungry until I’m full, I can eat delicious food—and I don’t have to worry about my weight.” (from Everyday Cooking.)

Producing meat requires fossil fuels

Modern agriculture and the way we produce food depend on fossil fuel. “Fossil energy is used for the production of feeds (land preparation, fertilizers, pesticides, harvesting, drying, etc.), their bulk transport (rail and/or sea freight), storage (ventilation), and processing (milling, mixing, extrusion, pelleting, etc.) and their distribution to individual farms,” states the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in its Framework for calculating fossil fuel use in livestock systems.

Other meat-producing uses of fossil fuels include: building facilities; movement of feeds from the storage to the animal pens; cooling, heating or ventilation; and waste collection and treatment; transport of meat, milk, and eggs, processing and storage and refrigerated transport; and distribution to the consumer and the final cooking process.

According to the Center for Sustainable Systems, “Agricultural activities were responsible for 6% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2009. Livestock are major contributors.” Meat production takes a significantly higher amount of acreage, too.

One acre produces more calories in grain than beef

To compare the amount of calories (remember we eat 2700 calories per day) which can be produced on one acre, using USDA statistics, one acre can feed 294 people with beef vs. 1443 people with wheat. Wheat produces close to 5 times more available calories. Soy, corn, and wheat will feed between 2.46 – 4.91 times more people per acre than beef.

Food Calories and Protein Produced Per Acre
Column 1:  Food Source Calories per acre                                                                   Column 2:  Protein gram per acre                                                                              Column 3:  People fed per acre                                                                                         Column 4:  How many times more calories than beef per acre

Beef (15%, ground)  795,047             82,388              294
Soy                              1,958,588           187,972             725         2.46
Corn                            3,207,782          121, 507         1188          4.04
Wheat                         3,893,561           150,038          1443          4.91

Livestock produce methane

The EPA Global Warming website states “Globally, livestock are the largest source of methane from human-related activities – and in the U.S., the third largest source. Livestock production can also result in emissions of nitrous oxide, a very potent greenhouse gas, and carbon dioxide, the most abundant greenhouse gas.” CO2e emitted per calorie is 27.8 times higher for the raising of beef compared to wheat.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Food Source
Food Source # CO2e / Acre #CO2e / 1000 calories Calories Compared to Beef
Beef 15% fat ground cooked 4,720            5.94
Soy                                                  1,301             0.66 8.9
Corn                                                1,967             0.61 9.7
Wheat                                                 832             0.21 27.8

It’s easy to eat less meat

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, economist and chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said “Choosing to eat less meat, or cutting out meat entirely, is one of the most important personal choices we can make to address climate change.”

“In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity,” said Pachauri. “Give up meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease it from there.”

How can we each have the most impact on our carbon footprint? One way is to evaluate your food choices. “Eat locally, eat less meat, eat organic and use less refrigeration. “ (Center for Sustainable Systems) There are many resources today to assist you in that goal. A good start is checking out for products that make a vegetarian or vegan diet easier and more tasty. Visit the Co-op for ideas in the cheese, dairy, freezer, and meat departments – where there are vegetarian and vegan substitutes for your favorite meat and dairy products. Besides tofu one can find vegan versions of sausages and hotdogs, turkey and bologna sandwich slices. There are also tofurky loafs, ground beef substitutes, a high protein gluten product called seitan, coffee creamer, cheeses, aioli, creamy salad dressings, soy chorizo and other items all of which support a vegetarian or vegan diet. They are easy to use and fun to explore. Of course, Dr. Ornish encourages his patients to eat whole grains with lots of vegetables and fruits.